The Villa 31 slum in the central district of Buenos Aires where successful community organizing resulted in government fulfillment of the previously neglected human right to clean water access. | Aleposta

Water rights around the world

Text Joshua Cooper
Thread Water Rights

The World Economic Forum cites the global water crisis as the number one global risk based on impact to societies. Clean water is a critical element in reducing poverty, hunger and illiteracy in our world, and many are asserting that the right to water must be realized for present and future generations. Advocacy campaigns are springing up with the aim of eliminating existing examples of exclusion rooted in environmental racism, and establishing equality regarding the most basic human need—water.

Fiji is synonymous with water around the world. However, indigenous people were not initially invited to the table in the marketing of this resource. Now the globally renowned Fiji Water Bottle Brand has teamed up with Conservation International to establish a trust on the main island of Viti Levu with the tribal resources of the Sovi Catchment Basin.

In Botswana, the Bushman exercise community and land rights in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in exchange for moving off their homeland in the name of wildlife conservation. The Bushmen demanded the right to sink wells so they could survive, and currently use boreholes for access to underground water for domestic purposes.

South Africa—like Hawai‘i—has a constitution that recognizes economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to water under Article 27(1)(b). In two towns, municipal governments were forced to respond to people pressure after acidified mine water contaminated the drinking water supply for Silobela and Carolina. The dire water situation forced local authorities to restore the supply of safe drinking water. The same article was cited again by the Lebohang Township in challenging unlawful, unreasonable and unfair action by the public water company. The town’s claim was upheld by the Court, which recognized the potential for irreparable harm if interim relief was not granted, and ordered the water supply to be reinstated.

Argentina also recognizes the obligation of government to provide drinking water to indigenous peoples living in areas under its colonial control: people still have rights even if the water industry has been privatized. In Córdoba, water company Aguas Cordobesas SA disconnected the water supply of low-income families after these families were unable to pay their utility costs. An injunction was granted for the families after plaintiffs successfully proved that the company’s actions compromised the health and physical integrity of the families there. In doing so, the Court recognized that water is, by nature, a public good guaranteed to all, forcing the corporation to provide a minimum daily supply of 200 liters of water per household.

People in Chaco province, some 200 miles to the northeast of Córdoba, protested the lack of clean water after 11 people died from health complications related to polluted water. The Supreme Court recognized permanent or irreparable damage to rights guaranteed under the Argentine constitution, regional declarations and global conventions.

And in the capital of Buenos Aires, people mobilized for government to guarantee the right to minimum essential levels of water, especially for those in extremely precarious situations. Residents of the Villa 31 slum in the central district of Buenos Aires successfully organized themselves and lobbied to be connected to the city’s water supply network. The city initially responded by providing water via cistern trucks, and then constructed drinking water networks for the people.

The Malaysian province of Johor has seen recent widespread protests over water shortages linked to rapid development of luxury apartments in neighboring, wealthy Singapore. At the same time, firms such as Pepsi are drawing tap water and treating it, before turning around and selling it back as branded water at the equivalent of $1 for a 12-ounce bottle. There is evidence to suggest that these protests are beginning to force the government to take action.

These are just a few of the ongoing struggles people—usually in poor, often indigenous communities—around the world are facing in the 21st century. Internationally, 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water, according to the United Nations. By 2030, 47 percent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 report.

Popular movements in Hawai‘i, South Dakota and elsewhere have generated unprecedented public awareness, putting pressure on public officials to enact change. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council adopted resolutions that fulfill the recognition of the human right to water. The UN Sustainable Development Goals also reinforce a commitment to clean water. The constant and consistent campaigns have created cases that provide paths forward for recognition and realization of water rights. The efforts for empowerment and engagement regarding water—specifically accessibility, availability and affordability—suggest steps each state can include in their initiatives.

These UN safeguards set up substantive routes from recognition to realization of these water rights. But the cornerstone is public participation in policymaking and principles to guide governments toward providing services. Together, this will help ensure the survival of the indigenous cultures that are intrinsically connected to the water and the land they have lived on and taken care of for millennia.


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

2017 S King Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96826
Ikaika Hussey
Creative Director
Mae Ariola
Will Caron
Copy Editor
Karen Shishido
Assistant Editor
James Charisma